Hillary Clinton, no longer buying baking supplies at Wal-Mart

Posted: Mar 26, 2006 12:05 AM

Hillary Clinton would be an icon of the Democratic Party, except that an icon stands for something by resembling that something. That's its literal meaning.

What does Hillary stand for?

Once she discouraged cookie baking, but not anymore. Lately, Hillary seems to be rediscovering middle-class family values and waltzing toward the center of American politics with her many newly-positioned positions on Iraq, immigration, and even some careful shadings on social issues.

To most conservatives, though, she still symbolizes all that's wrong with the Democratic Party. I think that's too narrow a view. To me, Hillary symbolizes much that's wrong with politics in general.

Take Wal-Mart. While her husband was governor of Arkansas, she served for six years on Wal-Mart's board. During that time, Wal-Mart grew and grew and grew. And Hillary deposited her paycheck and received stock options.

Juicier yet, Hillary and Bill earned the equivalent of frequent flyer status on Wal-Mart's corporate jets, taking 14 trips in 1990 and 1991 to begin their pursuit of the presidency. They'd hit the big time.

You'd think that, as a politician who wants to appeal to voters who admire real-world success, she'd ballyhoo that experience.

But instead, she's repudiating her Wal-Mart connections, quietly but firmly. Last year she returned a $5,000 contribution given to her by Wal-Mart. Reason? "Serious differences with current company practices."

The real issue on her mind is surely, as usual, more political than principled: the current crusade by the left against Wal-Mart. The controlling wing of the Democratic Party seems perpetually caught in the mindset of its heyday, from FDR through LBJ, when politics was seen as the management of three branches of society — Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business. A successful, big business like Wal-Mart is supposed to have a Big Labor component, a union, which is supposed to run the company into the ground, er, "help the employees." And between the two of them they are to churn as much money to and from Big Government as possible.

Quite a vision, eh? You've probably read about it in some Galbraith book. It's as old hat as a fedora.

So leftists, caught in this creaky vision of the world, spit and fume about Wal-Mart, a company that doesn't quite play well with Big Labor or Big Government.

Now, I tend to fume about Hillary's Wal-Mart history, too. Not because she's distancing herself from it, but because her relationship with Wal-Mart smacks of, at the very least, the appearance of corruption. Wal-Mart is an Arkansas company; Sam Walton, its founder, was Arkansas's favorite son, a pick-up drivin' billionaire. Putting the little lady from the governor's mansion onto the board could be seen as one way of paying off the governor.

My admiriation for Sam Walton as a man of character is all that causes me pause in suggesting this was a most foul relationship. Can you imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who love Hillary and hate Wal-Mart were Laura Bush added to Wal-Mart's board of directors, or, say, Mrs. Tom DeLay?

But, as rumor has it, Hillary was not exactly Sam's girl. Hillary did at least mention the idea of more health care coverage. I doubt if that fit in Sam's plan. But when challenged at heavily politicized stockholders' meetings, he could point to Hillary and say that, with her help, they were heading that direction. Hillary wasn't an icon for Sam. She was a token.

Hillary doesn't remember this, though. When asked about Wal-Mart's health care policies, she told the reporters "That was a long time ago."

She's a politician now, and not just her husband's payola agent, so it's doubly politic not to remember what was, in fact, a prominent issue at the time. Lorraine Voles, Hillary's communications director, insists that "Wal-Mart was a different company then, and the country was not facing the same health care challenges we face today." There's almost no part of that statement not worth a smirk.

On the issue of health benefits, though, no matter what Hillary chooses to forget, Wal-Mart is more generous to employees today than it was when Hillary graced the boardroom. Was she the cause of any of that improvement? Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart, summarized that "There's no evidence she did anything to improve the status of women or make it a very different place in ways Mrs. Clinton's Democratic base would care about."

That may be understatement. To Democratic Party activists, folks who hate Wal-Mart, her tenure on the board is something akin to treason. "Hillary, how could you?"

In the real world of citizens, workers, and consumers — of people struggling to make ends meet — this issue looks a lot different, of course. Most Americans don't work at Wal-Mart, so we don't have to worry overmuch about its employee policies. We have to worry about our wage contracts, instead, our employers and clients, our health care programs. Our sympathies stretch only so far, and whining doesn't help.

But it's not whining by Wal-Mart employees that we are most familiar with in the current Wal-Mart wars. Its hysterical denunciations by zealots who sound, more often than not, like crusty old unreconstructed socialists, c. 1945.

And now Hillary Clinton is trying to appease these fanatics, people who've convinced themselves that it's governments legitimate job to make things harder on consumers, for their own good. Pay more in prices. Pay more in taxes. Jump through all our regulatory hurdles. And, oh, we're on your side!

Well, if she gets their support, she probably won't get the support of the majority of Americans, who aren't, after all, as nuts as this. They shop at Wal-Mart. (Indeed, a recent poll of New Yorkers found that 63 percent of union households would shop at a nearby Wal-Mart.) And they expect to be able to search for the best deals, for themselves and their families. It has something to do with freedom.

Hillary Clinton, icon or token or totem or what-have-you, doesn't seem to stand for that.